Interpreting The ImPossible House Brief: My Architect Explains How He’s Going to Make My Dream Come to Life

by | Sep 27, 2022 | Building/Design

As part of my mission to be transparent about every part of my sustainable building process, I asked architect Paul Adams of Fairweather Homes to describe the briefing and design process.

Now that we’ve just had the DA approved (WOOHOO!) we thought it would be good to take a look at how Paul took my (very very specific) sustainable design brief and is working with interior designer Denby Dowling to bring that to life.

How would you describe my sustainable house design brief?

What this project is about really is a desire to demonstrate sophisticated, urban, contemporary living and living environmentally responsibly without showing that there are any hardships or design or aesthetic compromises. 

The building has to look and feel smart. It must be light-filled, with connections to the sky, the outdoors and surroundings. Because you’re outward-looking, we’re not creating inward spaces. It’s about up and out, light bright spaces. As you always say, “not dark and dingy!”

What’s the overall approach to design?

Our sustainable design approach for the exterior is to be fairly neutral in terms of richness of materiality. It’s really about the form – which is where prefab comes into the mix, in terms of creating a sustainable building that’s able to be prefabricated but also has an architectural element to it.

We’re looking to create bold forms that are responsive to the surroundings and the client. The materials won’t be overly decorative, there won’t be lots of multiples of materials, but there will definitely be strong elements or strong sections of material.

Your building is essentially a backdrop or canvas on which to grow plants and add elements. It needs to sit there comfortably; we want to create a timeless building that with its neutral materiality, can always be updated to adapt to trends and the personalities of people who might live here. Without being a bland box – it still has to still be interesting.

How are you as an architect/builder, working with my interior design Denby?

It’s a collaborative, iterative approach between Denby and myself. We both have a client brief, and we’re working in an iterative way to feed off each other. In this design stage, there shouldn’t be a sharp delineation of “you do that and I do that”. 

Once we get some sense of where the DA’s going, we’ll get into the documentation phase, and design development. At that stage, there will need to be a delineation of who does what, that’s where we start to specify materials, and you as the owner make your final choices.

Denby’s working from the inside out, my firm is working from outside in and the end result is how these two things come together. We might have to move our palette of materials to suit Denby, and we might influence her in return, but that back-and-forth needs to be allowed to happen.

All of us – Denby, you and I, we’re inherently planners, we’re problem-solving before we act, so in that mindset, we can help you do your decision-making nice and early. That’s the approach we’ve taken, and Denby’s on board.

What role does your client’s (my) personality play?

You are a strong-minded owner, which is good. Your character and personality – what you’re on about, really underpin the brief for us. And the decisions you’re making as you go along.

Your aesthetic is really about upcycled, reclaimed, eclectic elements, embodying character and storytelling. Everything in the design should have a story that goes with it – that’s a really key element. It includes pragmatic stories about building elements; and I’m sure you and Denby will be thinking about the story behind the eclectic, stylish objects you choose. It’s storytelling around those objects having had a journey and now, a future.

Colour and texture are definitely part of it: rich but not overdone. There will be a balance around textural richness. Formality too, you’ve definitely got order in your thinking and the way you are, which will come through in your selections of materials. A lot of that will come through with Denby’s work. 

What are the main design challenges with my brief, apart from the sustainability part? 

This style of compact design brief and type of site isn’t that uncommon. The typical challenges are around compact living, the requirement to get everything into very compact spaces, and the multifunctionality of each of those spaces. But with that comes real opportunities to do quite creative things. 

The staircase for instance is a fantastic opportunity to do something creative. It’s an element in the building that can be open and transparent; it can be very ephemeral and be a lovely object that sits in the room, connecting the ground floor plane to the upper level and getting that transparency up through the building.  

Or it could be a really dense, super compact element, full of drawers and cupboards and storage, and be super multifunctional – every nook and cranny of it just jammed with something that’s going to benefit the house. And there’s the richness of texture that can come with a design response to that. 

Also being a very small footprint, you’re not wanting to have a space where you walk into it and there you are, that’s it.

We’re creating eyelines or flow through building to get outlooks to the exterior and the lane down one side, looking up and out to the surroundings.

You can have little punctures in the wall to get other aspects and sightlines throughout the building, then you get drawn to the back, and you turn 180o back into courtyard. 

Once the house is inhabited, those sorts of design responses give lots of layers of complexity to the house, so while it might be really small, the experience of being in there will be multilayered and complex, and there will be changes in direction and navigation. Before you know it, this house will actually feel quite large and interesting. If we’d planned one big open plan living / dining / kitchen space in the same footprint, stepping into that would be a very different experience. 

So this is how those challenges are met, through orientation, getting light into spaces, getting plants to grow and getting some sort of outdoor experience.

We also have to think about the adaptability in the ongoing life of the building, with the spaces that are in there. Because it’s so small, you do want those spaces to have the ability to be different things over time.

They could be bedrooms or studies, living or dining rooms – depending on who’s in there, whether it’s a single person, a couple with little kids, two couples – you want to be able to allow all those things to happen.

What are the complications with me wanting to reuse and recycle materials, including those from the existing house?

If you want to use reclaimed, upcycled materials, there’s definitely a planning element to that – you can’t just go to a shop and say I’ll have four of those, you have to use what’s available. Then there’s the potential for what’s available to influence the next decision. 

That’s the beauty of this approach, it actually has to be iterative, it has to be flexible and quite fluid because it’s about finding things and responding to them.

With recycling elements from the build itself – you do an audit as best you can as to what’s there. If you can do it before you knock the building over that’s good. But it might be in demolition stage where you actually find out what the building is made of, what’s available, and put it to its best use. And the sooner you can do that the better, and then you can get that into the planning. 

It may be that a lot of what’s found may become decorative elements. The interesting thing with old buildings is that what’s behind the walls is often what we use on the surface, so old hardwoods and timbers which were used as part of the structural framing, are actually quite desirable now as finished products, becoming part of the joinery or cabinetry or linings. But you don’t know until you find it. It could be built of twigs and sticks.

What about the materials we can’t use?

If it can’t be used in the new build, then it’s a process of working out its best purpose generally. And if it can go somewhere to be upcycled, recycled or reused that’s the next step. 

Whether it gets used in this building or for another purpose, ultimately what you’re trying to do is create that circular economy, so it’s not ending up in the waste stream at all. That’s what it’s about. Some stuff might have to go to waste somewhere, and you have to manage that as responsibly as possible.

Thanks Paul Adams… Watch out for future blogs to see what we find in the house when we knock it down!!